Department of Energy, nuclear oversight agency on ‘high-risk’ list

“This is more than just chronic behavior — it’s like institutionalized bad management,” said Jay Coghlan, executive director of nonprofit Nuclear Watch New Mexico.

By: Scott Wyland [email protected] | March 3, 2021

The U.S. Department of Energy and its agency overseeing the nation’s nuclear weapons program have serious enough problems with managing contractors and projects — including for nuclear waste cleanup — that they made a government watchdog’s “high-risk” list again this year.

Both the Energy Department and its branch known as the National Nuclear Security Administration have made some progress in how they manage personnel, facilities and waste disposal, but they still are deficient in key areas, the Government Accountability Office said in its biannual high-risk report.

The report lists programs and operations that are high-risk due to their vulnerabilities to fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement — and some require an overhaul.

The GAO issues the reports at the start of each new session of Congress. They have led to more than $575 billion in cost benefits to the federal government in the past 15 years, the GAO said.

Los Alamos National Laboratory isn’t named in the report, but some of the GAO’s broad criticisms apply to work being done at the lab and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad.

For instance, the report said the Energy Department doesn’t accurately track or document whether waste cleanup goals — known as milestones — are met, missed or postponed. And the agency continually renegotiates deadlines it might miss, the report said.

This was a primary reason the state Environment Department has sued the federal agency and seeks to end a 2016 agreement on waste cleanup, saying it allows too much leeway to put off needed work.

A longtime critic of the Energy Department said the agency has made the high-risk list every time since the GAO started it in 1990.

“This is more than just chronic behavior — it’s like institutionalized bad management,” said Jay Coghlan, executive director of nonprofit Nuclear Watch New Mexico.

A National Nuclear Security Administration spokeswoman said Wednesday that officials couldn’t comment on the report.

The report notes the agencies have made efforts to more accurately estimate project costs, increase the number of federal employees allowed to do needed work and complete more projects.

However, they also have failed to draft needed plans, focusing on what they’ve done rather than what they will do, the report said.

And while the nuclear security agency was able to loosen restrictions on its workforce size, it has left 200 jobs vacant, the report said.

The agency has yet to draft a solid schedule to ramp up production of plutonium pits for nuclear warheads — one that meets the agency’s standards, the report said.

Plans call for the Los Alamos lab to make 30 pits by 2026 and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina to produce an additional 50 by 2030.

Critics like Coghlan believe it is unrealistic. Some federal officials also have expressed skepticism about the timeline.

The Energy Department also hasn’t developed reliable cost estimates for cleanup efforts, including at WIPP, the report said.

Current and future cleanup costs have increased in recent years to a level far greater than the annual funding available to address them, the report said. These future costs now total $406 billion for all sites, as of fiscal year 2020, and result in part from persistent project management problems, according to the report.

As of December, the GAO said 45 of its recommendations for cleanup remained unfulfilled, 19 of them dating to the 2019 high-risk report.

Coghlan said the Energy Department’s smaller projects are no longer covered in the report. The critique is now based on how the agency manages projects that cost $750 million or more.

“It’s the big projects in which DOE still fails,” Coghlan said. “The guilty are still rewarded with more money. Witness NNSA getting a 20 percent raise for fiscal year 2020.”

Greg Mello, executive director of nonprofit Los Alamos Study Group, said the Energy Department could get off the list if it resolved its problems, but that was unlikely given how deep and systemic they seem to be.

“DOE manages unique projects, and a lot of them are dangerous,” Mello said. “There have been a lot of problems in the past.”

There’s a lack of stringent oversight, especially for the contractors, he said, because government officials are reluctant to get in the way of the nuclear security mission.

“So for the actual live managers, it’s a difficult environment,” Mello said.


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